AT FIRST SIGHT “Do you believe in love at first sight?,” I asked the diminutive woman sitting across from me. Where did that question come from, I wondered. My tape recorder was spinning, and my notepad was open on the table. I reached for the teacup in front of me and took a sip. We were in one of Picono’s private booths, away from the ‘see and be seen’ tables frequented by the younger Hollywood set. I liked the place. The food was superb and presented beautifully, the restaurant bustling and decorated with rare tropical plants and small trees. I’d never seen so many orchids in my life. When she’d agreed to the interview, my companion had suggested this restaurant. It was her favorite, she’d said, and we could be more or less anonymous. After six years in LA I couldn’t believe I’d never discovered it before. “Oh, my. Yes. I do indeed, young lady!” Mivne Swann smiled, her bright blue eyes sparkling as she replied. Sixty-two years old, and her teeth were still perfect. Whiter than my own, I’d noticed, and she had dewy skin that belied her age. “Don’t you?” Frankly, I wasn’t sure. I mean, I’d heard people talk about things like that. But it had never happened to me. I’d been attracted to a man once or twice, but love at first sight? I found it hard to believe. “I don’t know if it really happens,” I said. “Besides, how can someone tell with just one look?” I replaced the teacup and looked at my watch. She was sharp. “We’ve plenty of time, dearie. I know you need your story, but your deadline’s not until next week. You’ll have it.” She was right; I needed that story. I needed the money. This was my big chance with Vane Magazine. And Mivne Swann might be a has-been, but her name brings instant recognition. After all, her lithe and beautiful form has graced thousands of movie screens. Her talent as an actress and her reclusiveness still provided fodder for cocktail party conversations. “Sit back,” she said. The rich perfume of orchids was mingled with the sounds of champagne corks popping in the background. “Let me tell you a story.” *** “I was twelve years old when I saw him in the music store, trying out one of the guitars there. Well, young lady, one look, and it was over! Cupid’s little arrow pierced my breast, I tell you. I knew instantly I was in love with him. “My God, he was handsome! I remember the expression on his face, too. Tender. All I could think was if he ever looked at me like that, my life would be complete. I could see how much he loved to play that instrument. And I couldn’t get enough of looking at him. “Did he notice me? No. But then, why would he? I was just a kid, and he was a grown-up. What could he possibly see in me? “I sat down where I wouldn’t be in his line of sight. I stayed and listened to him pluck those strings. He played like an angel. Even if he hadn’t entranced me, his music would have! “Well, he left the store without buying the guitar he’d been playing. I’d moved to where the songbooks were, so I didn’t hear what he said to the shopkeeper before he departed. “After that, I went by that little store every day, hoping for a glimpse of him. I was too chicken to go inside, you see. I was embarrassed by what I felt. A few times, luck was on my side. I’d see him through the window there, playing a different guitar each time. “One day I happened by just as he was leaving. He held the shop door open for me with one hand, wordlessly smiling. His other hand held a guitar case. I’d never been that close to him before, and my heart was pounding so! I couldn’t even get up the gumption to thank him for holding that door. “I kept going to that music store, hoping to see him again. By the time six months had passed, I finally realized he had no reason to return there. He’d already bought a guitar. I felt brokenhearted. “I thought about him every day. I loved him so; I couldn’t stop loving him. Still, I had to go on with my life. There was school, of course, and homework to keep me busy. And later, of course, I got that first acting role when I was seventeen, just before I graduated from high school. “That’s how I started in the movies, with that bit-part. The director liked me, and gave my phone number to Alex at the Hittson Agency. He’s been my agent ever since, and a good one. I never was wanting for work. “When I was twenty, I met Marlowe-- I was coming out of Spinner’s Boutique on Rodeo Drive with an armload of new dresses. I tripped because the heel on my shoe got stuck in a sidewalk grate, and Marlowe, bless his heart, caught me before I could hurt myself. We hit it off, you could say. Not that I loved him, you see. I was still in love with someone whose name I didn’t even know. But Marlowe and I did three pictures together. And the studio was the driving force when we got married, because it was good publicity. We were their two biggest stars by then. “Things were great for the first year. But Marlowe had started drinking heavily, and one day he passed out on the set. I didn’t know it, but he’d done that before, and the studio had told him to shape up. This time they didn’t try to talk him into behaving. They fired him. “That really put a strain on our marriage. He drank more and more. I didn’t know he was an abusive drunk until the morning he socked me in the jaw. Now, that was something I couldn’t tolerate. Bruises don’t look very attractive onscreen! “I left him that very day and moved into this hotel. I only saw him one other time, in court after I’d filed for divorce. But I’d heard he’d become a womanizer and drug addict. Mivne paused for a moment as several people filed past us on their way to the banquet room. The sounds of a celebration filled the air as the French doors opened. When it finally closed and we could hear ourselves again, she continued. “The papers had a field day with that, of course. Our court date coincided with a slow news day, so we made the headlines. I was the innocent victim, they said, but they made mincemeat of Marlowe. He never worked in a Hollywood studio again. He died later that year from a drug overdose, while in a holding cell in the downtown jail. “I was only twenty-two. But Marlowe had left an indelible impression on me. Not a good one, either. Love was for fools, I thought. And I was the biggest fool around, because I still thought about my first and only love every day. A man whose voice I’d never heard. “Over the next eleven years I kept making pictures, but I kept mostly to myself when I wasn’t working. Oh, I had a few friends I’d spend time with, and occasionally we’d go away for weekends. Sometimes I’d sleep with one of them. Not satisfying, but it filled a need at the time. “When I was thirty, I went to an inn for a quiet weekend by myself. It was a quaint, rustic place on the coast. I’d chosen it because there were no telephones or television sets there. The kind of place where one can think, or wander the seashore, and enjoy the sound of the waves without interruptions. “I’d checked in early one evening, and went downstairs to the dining room. I was enjoying the most delicious salmon I’d ever tasted when I heard the gentle sound of a guitar. It was so beautiful! I finished my meal, signed the check and went in search of that sweet serenade. “I found the source of that melody in the lobby. They had a huge stone fireplace there, with a cozy fire burning. Just to the left of the fireplace, the guitarist sat perched on an armless chair, with two giant candelabra behind him. There was no other light in the massive room. “His fingers moved so gracefully! I sat and listened to the pieces, pleasured by the honeyed tones. The only thing missing was someone to share this moment with. I’d noticed couples filtering in to listen; they’d sit on the convenient sofas, holding hands, exchanging loving glances. I felt more sad and lonely than I ever had before in my life. If only… Well, I’d made my choices. And the one man I’d ever really loved was nameless to me. “Once or twice the musician cast a glance my way. But he looked at everyone else, too. He’d play a few songs, then tell us a little about the compositions, then play some more. “His name was Willis Berry. His concert ended at midnight. He had a few albums for sale with him, and I’d liked what I’d heard. So I bought one, and when I returned home I played that record to death. The tender melodies reminded me somehow of that day I’d fallen in love. “Fifteen years later I no longer had a record player. Some of the music on that old LP still floated through my head, though. And one day I pulled out that old album. Memories flooded through me, of a romantic setting and being a woman alone. I wrote a letter to the record company, asking if they’d ever released that music on CD. “Well, they had, and for twenty dollars it became mine. Turned out the label was small, and that guitarist was the owner. He’d sent a personal note with the CD. “I liked his note very much, so I wrote him a letter. We began to correspond. I loved his letters, and I saved all of them. Then one evening, he called me on the phone, and we talked for over an hour. We’d become friends, you see. “Over the next few years we talked at least once a week. He knew me as Molly; that’s my real name, you know. “Four years after that first letter, he invited me to visit him. I’d stopped doing films by then; I was no longer interested. Alex kept sending me scripts, and I kept sending them back unread. “It was a warm Saturday afternoon the day I drove up to meet my friend. I remembered his appearance only vaguely, because there had been so little light. But I thought he’d been handsome. “I was met at his door by a tall, gray-haired man with the most vivid sea-green eyes. ‘You must be Molly,’ he said, and extended both his hands. “’I am,’ I said, taking them. 'You’re Willis?’" “He was indeed. We spent the remainder of that day conversing over tea. He told me about his music, about his life when he was younger. He’d done quite a bit of traveling, and had recorded as a sideman with some of the biggest names in music. And he’d recognized me, he said. He’d seen some of my films. “He showed me his scrapbook. What pictures he had in it! Photos of him, taken in all the corners of the world. And news articles, about the guitarist who’d wowed audiences with his talents in those faraway places. Together, we flipped through page after page. I was fascinated. “Then he turned a page, and my heart stopped. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The face in the newspaper clipping was that of the man with whom I’d fallen in love with all those years ago! I was so flustered I could barely speak. “I had to leave. I collected myself and bade him farewell. He made me promise to visit him again sometime, and said he’d come to see me, too. I drove home, my head spinning.” *** I snapped out of it when I realized she’d gone silent. “Did you ever see him again?” She looked at me, her lovely blue eyes misty. “Oh, yes,” she sighed. “He’s my best friend, has been for years now. But it’s platonic, if you know what I mean.” “Did you ever tell him how you felt about him?” “Felt? Feel, you mean. I still love him so.” Her face held a hint of sadness, of dreams never realized. “Oh, no, dearie. I just couldn’t! My heart flutters just to think of him. But he’s an avowed bachelor. He needs solitude, you see, so he can compose his music. And he runs the Music Youth Academy he founded. I count myself lucky just to be his friend. And I’d hate to ruin such a beautiful friendship.” She smiled faintly and closed her eyes. I could sense her disappearing into her past, to a store window where she’d gazed and loved and wished. I gathered my tape recorder and pad. I was ready to leave, but a large party at one of the tables was breaking up. I’d have to wait until they’d all gotten past to exit the booth. “Ms. Swann?” She opened her eyes at the sound of my voice. “Thanks so much for lunch, and the chat. Can I call tomorrow to finish the interview?” “Of course, dearie.” A startled expression washed over her face and she looked past me, her mouth falling open. “Will!,” she finally gasped. I turned around and followed her gaze. A tall, elegant, white-haired gentleman stood by an exceptionally tall orchid plant in full flower not five feet behind me, tears streaking his wrinkled cheeks. How long had he been there? “Oh, Molly!,” he whispered hoarsely. He slipped into the booth and enfolded her in his arms, murmuring quiet endearments to her. “If only you’d told me, my dear one! I was always afraid to tell you, but I have been in love with you since the first time I saw you.” His tears continued streaming. “Do you think I didn’t see that beautiful little girl in the music store all those years ago?” My own eyes spilled over as I left the restaurant. I never did get to finish that interview. I’d called the next day, but Mivne Swann, it seemed, had left abruptly. The maid who’d answered the phone was ecstatic, though. “She’s getting married,” the servant happily exclaimed after I’d identified myself, “to her love-at-first-sight man! She said you would call, and to make sure to let you know.” And today, if you were to ask me if I believe in love at first sight, I’d tell you it happens. As I left my office after making that phone call, a man slipped on the sidewalk and skidded to a stop at my feet. One look at his face, and love hit me square in the heart. Oh -- did I mention we're getting married next Saturday?

 

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